Do Your Scenes Start in Motion?

(An easy fix!)


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As Seen On
by Naomi Write + Co. in rewriting, screenwriting

File this under things you might not realize you’re doing, but once you do it’s easy to fix and makes a big difference in your screenplay.

I’m back this week with another Tweak + Polish tip (#9 in the series!) These are typically things you can tackle in the editing, wordsmithing, polishing phase, although today’s tip is one you can keep in mind earlier in the scene design and writing phase, as well.

This week’s tip: start scenes in motion.

You might have heard something like this before, i.e. the idea of starting “in media res,” or the other common advice, to “get in late, get out early.” What we’re talking about today is closely related to both, but it’ll be well worth thinking about the distinction between them.

Starting “in media res” vs. “in late, out early” advice

What is In Media Res? From Masterclass:

“In medias res is a latin phrase meaning “in the midst of things.” It’s used as a literary term to describe when a story opens with the character already in the middle of things—whether it’s a high octane car chase or a group of friends’ discovery of a dead body, this narrative technique captures the audience’s attention, bringing them front and center into the fray.”

While they’re talking about the story in general, what we’re discussing today is similar but specific to individual scenes — the importance of starting scenes from a non-static position.

The other common advice – to “get in late, get out early” – is directed more specifically at scene work, and is also similar to starting scenes in motion. But you could still write a scene that starts close to the main action or point of the scene (getting in late), and that also starts from a static place. It might feel like splitting hairs but thinking about the difference for a second will help clarify today’s tip.

Why should scenes start in motion?

We don’t want to come into scenes feeling like the characters are waiting for us to get there before starting the scene. Because that’s not what’s happening in a movie. The characters aren’t performing for the audience. They’re going about their business and we’re dropping in on them as we follow the story.

If you think about it that way, starting scenes in motion makes sense and might even feel obvious. Yet it’s easy to overlook.

I think because a common writing process involves:

  • having some idea of what a scene needs to accomplish and the main thing that happens in it
  • sitting down to a blank page
  • writing down everything that happens in the scene from the beginning of that action.

In that scenario, we’re thinking it through as we write it, instead of perhaps taking the time to brainstorm how the scene should play out — the most cinematic, entertaining way to accomplish the purpose of the scene.

But if we stepped back and thought about the nature of movies and how we’re dropping into scenes, rather than scenes waiting for us to show up, we’d see some easy tweaks to start scenes in motion and improve the overall pace and feel of the script.

Let’s see it in action

Let’s look at Andrew Dodge’s Bad Words screenplay as an example. (Fair warning: there’s some adult language and content in this script.) If we look at the scenes in just the first 10 pages, we can see today’s tip in action. Again — it’s something you might not have been aware of before, but once you start to notice it you’ll see it everywhere.

KIDS and FAMILY mill about in front of an elevated stage bedecked with rows of folding chairs.

  • In the opening scene, we come in on a regional spelling bee event in progress, and then find our protagonist Guy in the midst of it.

A PAUNCHY WOMAN in a SALMON COLORED PANTSUIT steps behind the microphone and dartles a smile out into the gymnasium.

  • This one might feel harder to detect but notice that when the scene starts, the woman is in motion – she “steps behind the microphone” and gets the bee started.

Guy stands outside with Salmon Pantsuit and the TWO OTHER JUDGES- a SMALL, BALD MAN, 70s, with huge eye GLASSES and a WOMAN, 50s, proudly wearing a BEDAZZLED DENIM VEST.

Guys sucks on his teeth as all three scrutinize a shitty
tattered PIECE OF PAPER.

  • Another that might slip past you, but look closely – even though the three characters are simply standing (e.g. not moving), the scene itself is in motion. All three “scrutinize a shitty tattered PIECE OF PAPER,” with Guy sucking his teeth. They’re in the middle of something when we join them in the scene.

A crowd of concerned parents has bloomed around the table.

There’s nothing we can do about the
loophole he found. He’s clearly an
alcoholic or a drug tweaker. I
think the least unpleasant option
is to just humor his derangement a
bit, let him participate, and when
he loses, his pathetic reality of a
life will sink in. The best child
will win. I assure you. Social
justice will prevail. Don’t you
all believe in your kids? I do!

  • When the scene starts, Salmon Pantsuit is mid-confrontation with the parents. The crowd has already “bloomed,” and Salmon Pantsuit is clearly responding to them, so we’re in the middle of the action (in media res) and the scene is in motion.

Brace-Faced girl stands behind the microphone. Bald Glasses is the proctor.



  • When this scene starts, the girl’s turn is in progress – the “motion” we see, or “action” if it’s easier to think of it that way – is that the girl is listening to the proctor assigning her next word to spell. This is action, even if it seems very still. The scene isn’t static, and that’s the distinction we’re talking about today.

They’re motion pictures, after all

Movies move, and scenes should be active. Dramatizing a story on screen means we’re watching things happen, people doing. I know you’re already aware of that.

But I know there’s also a tendency to start a scene at the beginning. Meaning, before anything happens. When really, we want to drop into scenes with things already in motion.

This tip is actually connected to a bigger effect you may have noticed — how, in some beginner scripts, it feels like the characters don’t exist outside this story. Instead it seems like the characters are only alive in front of us, when we show up to watch them. But that doesn’t feel real. Instead, we want to feel like we’re observing the parts of the characters’ existing lives that we need to see in order to follow the story.

So, as you’re going about your screenwriting day:

  • In the movies you watch and screenplays you read, notice how scenes exist before we show up to observe them.
  • To get better at identifying scenes in motion, ask yourself what the character is in the middle of doing when the scene starts.
  • When designing your own scenes, remember to start scenes before we get there. Instead of thinking, “where does the scene start?” Think: “where do we come in on the action?”

In case you missed them, the other tips in the Tweak + Polish series:

1: Cut Redundant Dialogue
2: Don’t Summarize, Dramatize
3: Write for Continuity
4: Digestible Sentences
5: The Dialogue Pass
6: Filmic Word Order
7: Laughter With Purpose
8: Weak, Wasted, or Redundant?


Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.